So the WNBA was finally back last night, with the first proper games since last Thursday. Weird how five days can feel like so long in the middle of the season when the offseason lasts nearly eight months. Anyway, even I feel like five games in one piece is a bit much to cover, so we’re going to split this up. The entire Western Conference played last night, but the five teams that still matter were encompassed by three games. So this column will cover those three contests, and tomorrow I’ll get to the East. It means Washington and Tulsa are in the wrong half, but at this point I barely consider them to count. It’s a five-team race on either side, and everyone outside of delusional Mystics front-office personnel knows it. On to the games.
The opening matchup last night was San Antonio‘s trip to Washington. So we had one team that had gone through all the hoopla of hosting the All-Star Game in previous days, and one that spent the weekend messing with their roster. The starting fives were the same as usual for both teams, but Washington had recent pickup DeMya Walker in uniform coming off the bench. Karima Christmas and Ta’Shia Phillips are both gone, as you probably know by now, but Alana Beard and Monique Currie are still in street clothes, leaving the Mystics currently down to nine.
Or eight, depending on your perspective. It’s hard to tell if Nicky Anosike’s head is actually in Washington yet. Her shooting touch certainly isn’t. She just can’t hit anything. Worse than that, she persists in taking these ugly fadeaway jumpshots that have no realistic chance of going in. Far, far worse than having a player who can’t shoot is having a player who can’t shoot but still thinks that she can. Know your limitations, and work around them.
It was a strange first half. Washington were playing their typical messy defense. San Antonio were finding more points in the paint than usual because they kept beating the Mystics on backdoor moves and simple cuts through the lane. Washington weren’t scoring all that well because outside of Crystal Langhorne they have no consistent offensive threats (and Anosike continued to illustrate her ability to miss from anywhere). But the Mystics were staying in it throughout. They’re a scrappy team. Not particularly organised, not particularly talented, but still fighting. Consecutive threes from Marissa Coleman and Kelly Miller gave them an 18-16 lead at the end of the first quarter. Only a ridiculously easy Tully Bevilaqua layup straight down the middle of the lane – Anosike’s defense has been dubious this year as well – and a pair of Becky Hammon free throws gave San Antonio a 37-34 lead going in at halftime.
The Silver Stars looked quiet. Maybe there were too many parties over the All-Star weekend. Hammon was lively in the first half but didn’t get much help, either from her fellow starters or the vaunted bench. Sophia Young was invisible. The third quarter was a disaster, but for both teams. There were 11 combined turnovers in the first five minutes of the quarter, after there had been only 12 in the entire first half. Giving the ball away has plagued Washington at times this season, but San Antonio seemed to feel the need to join in.
The benches came in and helped provide a little composure and some offense, although it wasn’t all from the typical sources. Yes, Jia Perkins and Danielle Adams were scoring for the Silver Stars, but they were also getting some solid minutes from second-year center Jayne Appel. Considering how often starting pivot Ruth Riley finds herself on the bench, either due to foul trouble or simple coaching choice, it would be hugely valuable to San Antonio if they could get some consistent production from Appel. Washington have barely had a bench all season. Last night, both rookie guard Jasmine Thomas and newly-acquired post DeMya Walker gave them a boost. Replacing kids with DeMya still doesn’t make much sense, but this is presumably why the Mystics did it – she’s more likely to produce right now. She’s barely half the player she used to be, but at least Walker can make the occasional layup and throw in the odd post move (although that step-through still looks like a travel every damn time she pulls it out).
So the game was tied at 51 heading into the fourth quarter, and still tied at 57 with over six minutes to play. Then came the key moments. First, Danielle Adams landed badly and hurt either her right foot or ankle. It was hard to tell, and no information has made its way out of the Silver Stars’ camp just yet. As mentioned in last night’s update, she needed help to make it back to the locker room and it didn’t look good. Minor sprains can hurt like anything for a while though, so hopefully that’s all it is. We’ll see. Meanwhile, her team made a push. Hammon drained a three, Coleman missed at the other end, and then Young went past Langhorne like she wasn’t there for a layup. Out of nowhere San Antonio had a five point lead and it felt like the momentum had shifted for good.
Washington still hung around. They forced two consecutive Young turnovers, and a Langhorne layup and Anosike free throws – her first points all night – got them within 63-61, but that was about it. This team has absolutely no clue how to finish games. Nearly every game they’ve played at home this year (and several on the road) has been close for most of the contest, and then the opponent has pulled away in the final minutes. They don’t have the composure, the experience, or the depth to close these games out. It must be maddening for their fans. Miller and Coleman both hit threes in the final seconds when they were scrambling and fouling to stop the clock, but by then it was too late. San Antonio start the second half of the season with a 73-67 victory.
For Washington it was same old, same old. Langhorne was pretty good, Matee Ajavon and Coleman hit a few shots, they played hard but it wasn’t enough. Head coach and GM Trudi Lacey talked about continuing their push for the playoffs earlier this week which is utter comedy. They’re not going anywhere this year, even if Alana Beard comes back with a bionic foot. I applaud the effort and work rate but they’re just not good enough. The communication and basketball IQ looks far lower than last year as well. They don’t switch or rotate fast enough on a lot of defensive possessions. With the state the roster’s in, it’s hard to blame Lacey’s coaching for the performances on the floor, especially as they’re still playing hard for her. But it’s not good, and it’s hard to see it getting much better any time soon.
A forgettable night for San Antonio, but you’ll happily struggle to a win rather than float to a loss. Hammon finished with 22 points but Perkins was the only other player in double figures with 10, and the team only had 11 assists on the night. For a side that usually has great ball movement and spacing, that’s remarkably low and shows just how poorly they were scoring. It needed Hammon and Perkins’s one-on-one skills to bail them out, and fortunately that was enough against Washington. It might not have been against anyone else. The major plus was Appel, who finished with eight points and 12 rebounds in nearly 20 minutes of action. She may not be quite what they were hoping for when they drafted her, but there’s progress. Plus on this team, the mere fact that she’s 6-4 and goes after rebounds is a significant positive.
Next up were the dysfunctional Los Angeles Sparks, in Minnesota to face the Lynx. After benching his veteran starters for much of the last game before the break, LA head coach Jellybean Bryant somewhat surprisingly stuck with the same stating five for this game. Still Kristi Toliver and Noelle Quinn in the backcourt, still Tina Thompson, DeLisha Milton-Jones and Ebony Hoffman in the frontcourt. That didn’t go too well.
For what felt like the thousandth time in recent weeks, LA got off to a horrible start. They looked pathetic, and flat out lazy. At this point, I’d be embarrassed to be a part of that squad, and as anyone following me on twitter will have heard last night, I’m now fully on board with the ‘blow it up’ plan. If there are any takers out there for all the vets, trade them anywhere before the deadline. They’ve got less than three weeks. Most of this roster looks like it’s mentally checked out. The Sparks coughed up so many turnovers to Minnesota in the first half that I’m surprised the official scorer managed to keep count. Most of them were sloppy, unnecessary errors that handed breakaway opportunities to the Lynx, and if they could’ve converted more open layups they’d have been dominating even more than they already were. Minnesota led 28-16 at the end of the first and that flattered LA.
Bryant went to his bench in the second quarter, a group that at least continues to play hard. Although it’s not like the turnovers stopped. Fortunately for LA, both Toliver and Hoffman were hot, and nearly everything they threw up was going in. That was all that was keeping them involved in the contest, because their play was still a mess. The Lynx are more than happy to push the ball and score on you if you offer them easy chances to do so, and LA were in the mood. Minnesota led 43-30 at halftime, and it still felt like that was generous to the Sparks. 27 total turnovers in the half, including 17 by LA, was the remarkable stat at the break. It wasn’t pretty.
I can’t offer much analysis of the second half, because WNBA.com’s LiveAccess broke down. Unless you happened to be in the arena in Minnesota, you hardly saw any of it. A barrage of made shots somehow got LA within four points at 47-43 early in the half, but after that everything returned to normal. The Lynx pulled away again in moments, and ultimately eased to an 85-72 win without much trouble. After that first half it was hard to believe that LA were ever going to threaten to win this game, and that’s how it proved.
Toliver had 28 points, Hoffman 24, but as a team the Sparks had 25 turnovers. Minnesota scored 35 points off those turnovers, which is an insane amount to give up. Regardless of Candace Parker being hurt, you can’t win basketball games being this careless with the ball. They also had just 10 assists in the entire game. While it’s hard to wrangle this roster at the best of times, I don’t know what Bryant is doing with Ticha Penicheiro. She played the whole second quarter last night, did fine, and then spent the entire second half on the bench. Noelle Quinn’s having an invisible season and Toliver’s better playing off the ball, so despite advocating for trades of the old guard I’m not sure why Ticha doesn’t play more. Assuming that they’re going to keep her. When your team can barely complete two straight passes, having the WNBA’s career leader in assists on the floor seems like it might make sense. Anyway, the only hope left for this team is that the return of Parker will inspire them to wake up and start playing better basketball. It looks unlikely to me. Adding someone like that back into the mix will obviously help, but they’ll still be a disorganised mess. Plus Thompson, one of the WNBA’s Top-15 ever with an ego to match, has clearly been the worst-performer among the frontcourt players in recent games. Is she finally going to the bench for good when Candace returns?
Minnesota simply took advantage of everything they were offered in this game. Rebekkah Brunson and Maya Moore both had pretty poor nights offensively but they chose a good game to struggle in. Brunson even picked up two technical fouls (the first looked dubious, the second I couldn’t see) to suffer the first ejection of the WNBA season. It made no difference whatsoever. They ran at every opportunity, scored with ease and coasted home. These are the kinds of games you love as a coach.
The final game last night was in Phoenix, where Seattle were the visitors. It might be a bit much to call it a hoodoo or an indian sign, but the Storm had beaten the Mercury eight straight times heading into this game, so Phoenix were desperately hoping to break the streak. After some miserable road outings lately and a 2-6 record away from Key Arena, the Storm were simply looking to carry the performance from their win over San Antonio last week into the second-half of the season. Keeping up that hex over the Mercury would be nice too.
The early stages looked good for Seattle. Playing Phoenix always has a tendency to help teams maintain an offensive flow, but regardless of the opposition Seattle looked like they’d remembered how their offense worked in the Silver Stars game. This was more like the real Storm from last year than the shambles we’ve been seeing lately. Still, Phoenix’s offense was working as well, and they knocked down shots throughout the first quarter – Seattle’s went a little cold once the bench players came in. With DeWanna Bonner on the floor – easily the Merc’s best defender – Phoenix even played a little defense. That left the Mercury with a 27-18 lead to finish the first.
The first half ended up being all about turnovers. In the first quarter, the Mercury created some steals and turned Storm carelessness into easy points. In the second, Seattle stepped up their defensive intensity, Phoenix became the team coughing up the ball, and the Storm roared back into it. An 11-0 run early in the quarter featuring three Seattle steals tied the game at 29, and we had a close contest again. Phoenix had a narrow 43-40 lead at halftime, but it felt like Seattle were causing them problems. There wasn’t the same offensive speed and fluency that the Mercury crowd are used to witnessing.
In the second half, Seattle’s defense started to have its typical effect on Phoenix. This is why they’ve beaten them so many times in a row. Seattle play tough, physical defense, and they switch on practically everything, which makes all the Mercury’s screening action far less effective. No one has to battle around a pick or make a decision whether to slide under or fight over a screen – they just switch to the player setting the screen and let their teammate take the dribbler. Occasionally that means you’re left with a mismatch, but not often with this Storm club, especially against Phoenix. Firstly, the likes of Katie Smith and Tanisha Wright will battle it out with anyone, even post players who’ve got several inches on them. Mismatches aren’t always easy to take advantage of against defenders like that. Secondly, Seattle are very good at rotating defenders back around whenever they get the chance after a screen has created a switch. Thirdly, Phoenix don’t really want to slow down and take advantage of small defenders being trapped on bigger players down low. They want to slip cutters into the paint for quick layups, or come off screens and fire up shots against defenders who aren’t quick enough to cover the ball. That’s not happening against Seattle.
So the Storm started to take control. Unlike Phoenix, who derive everything from their offense, Seattle thrive off their defense. When that’s working like it’s supposed to, their offense seems to work markedly better. Of course, it’s also useful when they actually make some shots – something which escaped them for much of 2011. They even got some bench help in this one, something else which has been lacking for most of this season. With Ashley Robinson promoted into the starting lineup, Le’coe Willingham is back to being the first post off the bench and looks more comfortable. Katie Smith has hit a few jumpers lately. And then from the end of the bench, we have Belinda Snell and Ewelina Kobryn. It’s rare that head coach Brian Agler makes much use of his full bench, but Snell came in and hit two big three-pointers in the middle of the third quarter that gave Seattle a shot in the arm. Kobryn had her first effective game as a WNBA player, hitting a three of her own in the first half and then producing solid minutes in the second as well. It’s so useful when you don’t have to kill your top seven all night long to stay in games.
Snell’s threes and a Kobryn layup turned a one-point game into a 61-52 Storm lead late in the third quarter. A dumb foul by Diana Taurasi jumping into Katie Smith on a three-point attempt to close the period allowed Smith to stretch Seattle’s advantage to 67-57 going into the fourth. The Storm’s defense was good enough to maintain that lead until there were five minutes left, but late in the game their offense dried up to such an extent that it started to let Phoenix back into it. You can only keep this team quiet for so long when you stop scoring points yourselves. Sue Bird played off the ball in a lot of late minutes last season, allowing Tanisha Wright to run the offense while she took more of a scoring role. That was clearly the idea last night as well, but everything ground to a halt while Bird ran around trying to get open and Wright pounded the ball up top. There was no rhythm any more, and it handed the initiative back to Phoenix. From 73-63 with 5:49 to play Seattle only managed a single Bird jumper until there was barely a minute left. Meanwhile, Alexis Gray-Lawson provided a boost off the Mercury bench, with a three and a couple of free-throws. On a night when Phoenix’s other point guards – starter Temeka Johnson and backup Ketia Swanier, returning from her eye injury – were both ineffective, Gray-Lawson was a breath of fresh air. It was a surprise when Mercury head coach Corey Gaines pulled her for Johnson with two minutes left in the game, but Gaines is sometimes in a world of his own with his substitutions.
A Taurasi jumper pulled Phoenix within 77-76 with a minute to play, and Seattle ran yet another of those Bird-off-the-ball plays that went nowhere. Wright dribbled, and dribbled, and dribbled, eventually nailing a jumper but only after the shotclock had gone off. No basket, Phoenix ball with 36 seconds to play. Then the Mercury messed it up. They tried to run a dribble-handoff on the left side from Johnson to Taurasi, and Camille Little snaked a hand in and poked the ball away. Maybe it was the basketball gods returning the favour after Penny Taylor pulled off something very similar against Minnesota a couple of weeks earlier. Little turned it into a layup the other way, with Taurasi clearly tempted to foul her but scared of the clear-path call.
Now down three, Phoenix quickly inbounded and attacked again, and this time Taurasi drew a foul cutting across the lane. She only went 1-of-2 from the line, but it still wasn’t finished. Bird slipped over on the inbounds pass, and Bonner quickly pounced to turn it into a jump ball. As you’d expect with a Bonner-Bird jump, Bonner won it easily, but Tanisha Wright was quicker than Temeka Johnson to the loose ball and TJ had to foul her. Wright made both free throws, stretching the lead to four and the game was done. Another late pair from the line by Wright made the final scoreline 83-77, and Seattle had their ninth straight win over the Mercury.
Once again, this was proper Storm basketball. This is how they’re supposed to play, Lauren Jackson or no Lauren Jackson. Hard-nosed, physical defense that constantly lets the other team know that they’re right there with them, and a smooth (although slow) offense that creates more than just endless outside jumpers. 18 fastbreak points nearly kept pace with Phoenix’s 22, and they won the points in the paint battle 44-30. There’s no way in hell that the Storm would’ve done that playing the way they were a couple of weeks ago, because even with the transition points everything else would’ve been from outside. Phoenix’s porous defense can cure a lot of ills, but not all of them. You still have to show up and take advantage, and play good enough defense to stay in touch. Seattle did just that, and kept their record against this team up and running. It also moves them to only one game behind the Mercury in the standings.
Phoenix can put it down to an off-night if they want to, but it’s pretty clear that they struggle to deal with Seattle’s defense. 77 points on 40% shooting is miles behind their averages against other teams. Taurasi was really the only one of their stars to show up, scoring 26 points on 9-15 shooting. Penny Taylor didn’t look troubled by the hit in the face she took from Tamika Catchings in the All-Star Game, but she was very quiet compared to how she’s been playing most of this season. Without her, Taurasi and the sidekicks wasn’t quite enough. On the bright side, if the season ended today Minnesota might well take care of Seattle in the first round of the playoffs before Phoenix even had to worry about the Storm. Unless they manage to break this streak in one of the remaining two regular season matchups, that’s probably exactly how the Mercury would like it. They’re really not fans of defense.
In other news…
Ta’Shia Phillips has a new team, but it’s not Tulsa. They had first chance to claim her off waivers (it goes from worst-to-first based on current record) but passed, and she ended up in the hands of New York. The ink had barely dried on that seven-day deal that Felicia Chester signed to return to the Liberty before she was waived again to create room. John Whisenant has already turned Quanitra Hollingsworth into a serviceable backup post this season, so now we get to see what he can do with Phillips. At least now he has a rookie post drafted even higher than Jessica Breland to work with, so maybe the fans will forgive him even if Breland succeeds in Connecticut. Although Lib fans tend to have long memories.
I’ll cover the Connecticut-Chicago and Atlanta-Tulsa games from yesterday in tomorrow’s column, which should go up early enough for everyone to read it before they all play again tomorrow night. Don’t forget that the Phoenix-San Antonio game tips off around lunchtime if you want to catch it live.
Phoenix @ San Antonio, 12.30pm ET
Washington @ New York, 7pm ET
Los Angeles @ Atlanta, 7pm ET
Indiana @ Connecticut, 7.30pm ET
Chicago @ Tulsa, 8pm ET